During the Annual General Meeting season, a common topic arises: exactly what powers do members have?
Many CEOs we have worked with can recount an all too familiar situation: the Annual General Meeting they were attending (not necessarily their own) has dissolved into farce and acrimony because of a misunderstanding about the rights and powers of its members. This leaves the organization confused, with the Board and staff unsure what to do next.
This issue of member powers even has some of the legal experts baffled (evidenced by conflicting advice given to nonprofits). However, both legally and in terms of governance practices, the powers of members in a nonprofit is very simple.
What powers do members have?
Members' powers are found at both the formal legislative and the individual constitutional level. At the formal legislative level (primarily the Corporations Law and Associations Incorporations Act), members generally have three rights at law:
1. The right to appoint or remove directors to the nonprofit Board in a manner specified in the Constitution through the Annual General Meeting.
(Many argue members should not have the right to elect officer positions, as this should be the right of the Board collectively, based on personal skills and the requirements of the Board. Many nonprofits, however, have this officer election written into their constitution.)
2. The right to appoint or remove auditors (with due notice).
3. The right to vote for or against changes to the Constitution at a General Meeting (Annual or Extraordinary).
4. Members also have the right to bring special resolutions to the AGM in the manner specified in their constitution. However, members cannot direct the Board to act in a particular administrative, management or contractual manner.
This means that, whilst members have the right to let their wishes be known via special resolutions as per their constitution, the Board is under no obligation to act on these.
The law states that Board directors are responsible at law for the decisions of the nonprofit organization, not the members. Members cannot direct the Board other than through the AGM or an Extraordinary General Meeting, and then only in the manner of constitutional changes, appointment to or removal from the Board, and auditor appointment and remuneration.
Any other relevant matter can be raised via a proper resolution that meets the requirements in the constitution, and the Board should certainly take note of member’s views and discuss the matter, but the Board is not required to act on this.
What power does the Board have?
The nonprofit Board has the power to conduct any business not otherwise specified as General Meeting business, which only members can approve. The Board has the legal power to conduct the business of the nonprofit organization, on behalf of members.
If the members do not agree with the direction or management of the nonprofit organization, they can vote new Directors in at the AGM.
The business to be conducted by members at the Annual General Meeting includes:
1. Receiving of minutes
2. Consideration of financial statements (sometimes “To Receive” is used instead of “Consideration”. They do not need to be approved.)
3. Consideration of Reports of the Board and Auditors (sometimes “To Receive” is used instead of “Consideration”. They do not need to be approved.)
4. Election of Board members
5. Election or continuation of the auditor, and auditor remuneration
6. Any changes to the constitution
7. Any special resolutions with appropriate notice
8. Any General Discussion
At the constitutional level, members have the power to view the member register and minutes of meetings of members, and to call meetings as per the relevant law.
They are sometimes, however, also given the power to elect officer positions (Many advise against this for reasons given above). Cases of a constitution that give members the power to set fees and approve contracts are not unheard of.
This sets up the condition where the Board, fully legally liable for the conduct of the organization, is being told what and how by members, who have no legal liability. As a Director, I would not accept these constraints.
Was this article helpful? If you have any other points regards the specific powers of nonprofit members, please leave them in the comments section below.